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Dining critic Tom Sietsema answers readers’ questions

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A periodic peek at the Post food critic’s e-mail, voice mail and inbox.

While dining with family members at Lauriol Plaza Feb. 16, Gene SirLouis says his sister-in-law returned her well-done steak, which she had requested be cooked medium-rare. “I was chatting and a little slow to start my entree,” e-mails the District reader, “but when I did, I felt like the halibut was spoiled. I mentioned it to my partner, who also ordered halibut, and he tasted his and agreed. We summoned a waiter and sent these entrees back. Then we waited. A long time for different main courses.” After the entrees were cleared, “the waiter came to the table and said that the two of us who had the halibut were getting free dessert. My sister-in-law said that she should also get dessert, since her entree was also sent back. He refused her request.”

SirLouis thought the entire table should have been given something — “or nothing” — but what bothered him most was that he e-mailed his concerns to Lauriol Plaza and got no response. “A week later I called. I was told that the e-mails go to their sister restaurant, Cactus Cantina, and that they would call over and check. And that was it. I have never had a response.”

Luis Reyes, chef and co-owner at Lauriol Plaza, was off the night of the incident, but he says that the restaurant’s typical response to cooking mistakes or to dishes customers don’t care for is to remake them, offer a substitute or take the charge off the bill.

But I think that having offered ice cream to some diners and not others was ineffective; the best time to remedy a problem is when it’s happening. Better, then, for the restaurant to have sent out a free shared appetizer so no one had to wait without any food. As for the e-mail SirLouis sent to Lauriol Plaza, general manager Jose Belloni recalls reading it, and he had planned to discuss the matter with the chef, but simply forgot, Reyes says.

To make amends, the chef planned to reach out to SirLouis and give him the option of a refund of the entire $180-plus dinner or a $200 gift certificate.

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After Maria Trabocchi was asked by a potential customer if Fiola , her husband Fabio Trabocchi’s high-end Italian establishment, is child-friendly, the restaurateur took the conversation to Twitter, where she told her followers she loves young diners, but parents are responsible for their behavior. I agreed, which prompted one of my Twitter followers, Jesse Ellis of Alexandria, to send me the following missive:

“Parents who ask that [question] aren’t looking for a place to let their kids run around, screaming and pulling toupees off of senators seated at other tables. They know what their kids’ limitations are and want to know if the restaurant is suitable.” (Specific questions help an establishment to determine child-friendliness: Are there highchairs? Separate menus?) “We’re taking our kids to Olive Garden tonight, and that works for us because they have plastic cups with lids, crayons and a kids menu with activities, and a nice big lobby that we can retreat to if we need to take a quick break and walk around for a minute. And it’s loud. And the wait staff is used to dealing with kids. My kids can behave in that type of environment. But they can’t when they have to choose between foie gras and squid, when they have to whisper the whole time, and when they have to stay seated for 2 hours.”

Bottom line: It’s a two-way street. Diners need to ask the right questions, and restaurants need to be specific in answering.

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“My Arlington-based book club is reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir of cooking and eating,” the acclaimed “Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef,” wrote a chat participant whose question I didn’t have time to address. “We’re thinking it would be fun to meet at a restaurant where we can see the chef at work. Any recommendations?”

Close to the group’s home, Tallula in Clarendon affords one of the better views. Options for exhibition kitchens increase dramatically in Washington, however. Among some of the more entertaining venues for observing cooks up close are Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, Elisir downtown, Birch & Barley and Estadio in Logan Circle, Ping Pong Dim Sum with branches in Chinatown and Dupont Circle, and the recently arrived La Forchetta in Upper NW, helmed by Roberto Donna.

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During another online discussion, a diner who made a reservation for Sushi Taro on Open Table wrote of his surprise to see a $40 minimum per person on his e-mail confirmation. “It’s not the dollar amount that bothers me — sushi, especially good sushi, is an expensive meal. But I’ve never heard of a restaurant requiring a per-person minimum. Is this common and I just haven’t noticed? Do you think they enforce it?”

While common for food-delivery services, minimum spending limits in restaurants are more unusual. Nobu Yamazaki, the chef-owner of Sushi Taro, says he instituted a baseline (originally on his menu) after he renovated his Japanese restaurant three years ago. The makeover transformed a popular neighborhood establishment into a more exclusive destination and reduced the seating by almost half, to about 70 seats. The minimum order notice (which moved online in February) was to alert customers to the refinements, says Yamazaki — who says he has yet to enforce the change.

The regular Dining column will return next week.

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